The other 1917
Premiering at the 2020 Rotterdam film festival, João Nuno Pinto’s MOSQUITO is an provocative, if derivative, odyssey into the heart of colonial darkness
1917? Mosquito, which actually is set in 1917 and is premiering this week at Rotterdam’s IFFR festival, is the real thing.
OK, almost the real thing, since this is also loosely based on real facts; in this case, the true story of director João Nuno Pinto’s grandfather, sent to Africa to fight the Germans on lands the film clearly explains were colonized through violence, death and prejudice.
Zacarias (João Nunes Monteiro), our wannabe hero, belongs elsewhere. He is looking for adventure and glory to forget his desultory status back home in Portugal, so he enlists in the Army to go fight in France in WWI. Instead he’s sent to Africa with “the dregs of the empire” (in the words of a veteran sergeant who’s seen it all), falls prey to malaria and, left behind to get well, decides to walk all the way to the front to join his column.
It’s a journey into the “heart of colonial darkness”, yet again, but one that is invented by screenwriters Fernanda Polacow and Gonçalo Waddington from historical facts, and that is generally forgotten by the film and history books. In fact WWI has been the subject of a curious recent mini-boom in Portuguese film-making, and Mosquito treads a similar narrative arc to Hugo Vieira da Silva’s Posto Avançado do Progresso (2015, based on a Joseph Conrad story, An Outpost of Progress), which also followed the disintegration of the Western colonist sent to the furthest outposts of the jungle
It’s the whole idea of progress and achievement that is challenged from Mosquito’s very first shot — the arrival of Zacarias’ company in Mozambique after the ocean passage: in the absence of an actual pier, the soldiers are taken to land on the shoulders of negro slaves. The colonial mindset is something that Zacarias will slowly be stripped of in his odyssey, as he moves deeper and deeper into the jungle, still battling the aftershocks of fever, into an hallucinating journey where he will, at some point, be colonized himself.
I’m not always sure of what Pinto, a veteran advertising director here helming his second feature, is trying to tell us in Mosquito. The project, in the works since 2013, predated the researching of Portugal’s colonial past that has since become a central question in history and society, and although it was only completed in 2019 the film doesn’t feel opportunistic. But the attention with which Adolpho Veloso’s camera stays close on the heels of Zacarias’ walking, and the director’s approach as a series of intense, handheld long takes that crackle with omens and dangers, create a tension the film’s rhythm and parallel cutting can’t always sustain or justify.
Above all, there’s a feeling we’ve been here a lot of times before; this could be a coming-of-age version of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with Zacarias being the Willard that slowly transits into a whole other reality as he heads deeper into a world he knows nothing of. Even the film’s narrative is constructed as a series of episodes, or encounters, that grow increasingly more outlandish (not to mention, in one case, borderline hallucinatory). It also reminded me, at times, of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in the way that it underscores the grandeur and dangers of the landscape, the sense of an original Eden that colonization and war has blithely destroyed with utter disregard for the consequences
And yet, the film-making is undeniably powerful and thought out, and João Nunes Monteiro’s physical presence as the teenage soldier getting a crash course in survival is impressive; the young actor carries the whole film on his shoulders, as he ever so slowly breaks down in front of the camera until there’s nothing left to do but rebuild himself. And the setting of Mosquito is different enough, and unexplored enough, to make taking this journey to the heart of darkness worthwhile. It may be solid more than inspired, but that’s not bad these days. And, sincerity for sincerity, I prefer this to 1917.